As far as ill-advised Nicole Kidman vehicles that plunder past artifacts of pop culture are concerned, the nicest thing one can say about Bewitched is that its an improvement over The Stepford Wives. Thats primarily because of Kidman herself, who manages to harness her maddeningly inconsistent role with such success that the result is an offbeat and original characterization. Otherwise, the same elements that made Stepford such a disaster are again in full force: zero chemistry with a leading man who was a last-minute replacement (just as Matthew Broderick stepped in for John Cusack on Stepford, Will Ferrell likewise takes Jim Carreys sloppy seconds); a script with no sense of direction once it gets past its setup; and accomplished vets eventually abandoned and presumably left to wither on the cutting room floor. Directed and co-written (with her sister Delia) by Nora Ephron, Bewitched isnt a faithful adaptation of the popular 60s TV series; instead, its the Ephrons attempt to outsmart Charlie Kaufman by constructing a scenario in which fading actor Jack Wyatt (Ferrell) attempts to rejuvenate his career by playing the Dick York/Dick Sargent part of the cuckolded husband in an update of Bewitched. So his own star wont get eclipsed, he hires an unknown named Isabel (Kidman) to essay the Elizabeth Montgomery role of Samantha, little realizing that hes cast a real witch to play a fictional one. Initially clever, the movie takes one wrong turn after another beginning around the halfway mark, frittering away its comic potential by focusing on an unlikely romance between Isabel and Jack. Ferrells manic performance quickly grows tiresome, while Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine are wasted in malnourished roles.
HERBIE: FULLY LOADED PP1/2
The notion of a supercharged Volkswagen beetle seems quaint in this age of monolithic, gas-guzzling SUVs -- indeed, the first Herbie picture, The Love Bug, hit theaters back in 1969 -- yet given the sort of cacophonous kiddie dreck that routinely fills the auditoriums today, this blast of old-fashioned sentiment isnt half-bad. Lindsey Lohan, whose tight outfits continually threaten to put the kibosh on the films G rating, stars as Maggie Peyton, a third-generation member of a NASCAR family whose lineage includes her deceased grandfather, her retired pop (Michael Keaton) and her clumsy brother (Breckin Meyer). Forbidden by her dad from ever taking part in races, Maggie goes against his wishes once she discovers that the rusty VW she rescues from a junkyard is magically endowed. Herbie and Maggie manage to beat obnoxious NASCAR champ Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) in a street race, but once the car and driver find themselves revving up for a NASCAR competition, the stakes are raised considerably. Lets leave the Freudian implications to those with more time on their hands (horny Herbie is constantly squirting fluids on people, attempting to mount other cars, and making passes at a female VW barely out of adolescence) and maintain that this is suitable fare for families with small children. The wavering quality of the special effects -- more special in some scenes than others -- will pass unnoticed by the little ones, while parents will enjoy revisiting their youth via the mix of rock oldies on the soundtrack. Still, couldnt music supervisor Howard Paar have used a smidgen of imagination by NOT prominently featuring Steppenwolfs Born to Be Wild?
THE PERFECT MAN P1/2
Hilary Duff, who seems to be playing Lizzie McGuire even when her characters are named something else, tackles the role of Holly Hamilton, a teenager who doesnt like the fact that her single mom (Heather Locklear) uproots the family every time she gets dumped. Holly decides to cheer up her mother by fabricating a Mr. Right: Taking suggestions from her friends unwitting uncle (Chris Noth), Holly anonymously sends her mother flowers, writes her poems and shoots her cheery Instant Messages. But it never occurs to Holly that, duh, her mom might eventually want to meet this seemingly perfect man in the flesh, and thats when her scheme begins to unravel. Even allowing that this is supposed to be aimed at younger viewers, the film is so casually cruel in its treatment of its characters that a bad taste lingers even after everybody learns their valuable life lesson during the final 10 minutes.
BATMAN BEGINS PPP1/2
Director Christopher Nolan, who immediately established himself with the crackerjack crime gems Memento and Insomnia, has made another movie in which thought often speaks louder than either action or words. Fear is the motivating factor for almost every character, starting with young Bruce Wayne. As he grows older and notes how his hometown of Gotham City continues to degenerate into a cesspool of crime and corruption (something his father fought hard to change), Bruce (now played by Christian Bale) embarks on an international odyssey, hoping to learn all about the inner workings of the criminal mind. This journey eventually lands him in the company of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ras al Ghul (The Last Samurais Ken Watanabe), two powerful figures who run The League of Shadows, a vigilante group bent on wiping out evil wherever it exists. Having finally conquered his fear of bats, Bruce decides that this creature of the night will become his symbol as he battles his burgs evildoers. He has always been able to count on the services of the family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), yet he also finds allies in Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), an inventor who works for Wayne Enterprises, and detective Jim Gordon, seemingly the only honest cop left in Gotham (its nice to see perennial villain Gary Oldman cast in this sympathetic role). More ambiguous in her support is assistant d.a. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who views Bruce Wayne as a shallow billionaire and Batman as a potentially dangerous vigilante. Yet even she would concede that the Caped Crusaders preferable to Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the citys leading crime boss, or Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a twisted psychiatrist who also operates under the guise of The Scarecrow. The Scarecrow? Ras al Ghul? These are second-tier Batman villains. Yet by kicking off his series with these lower profile baddies, Nolan has immediately made it clear that he wont kowtow to anyone or anything, least of all commercial expectations.
THE HONEYMOONERS P1/2
The classic 1950s TV sitcom gets refitted for a 21st century big-screen excursion, but unfortunately, its the audience who gets it right in the kisser. We do get an irascible bus driver named Ralph Kramden and his dim-witted friend Ed Norton, played here by Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Epps. The plot centers around their efforts to raise enough money to place a down payment on a duplex coveted by their wives (Gabrielle Union and Regina Hall). One character makes a crack about The WB, which in all honesty is where this feeble film belongs.
MR. AND MRS. SMITH PP1/2
Based on the countless scenes in which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie strip down to their undergarments, its clear that there isnt an ounce of flab on either of those beautiful bodies -- its just too bad the same cant be said about the film itself. Sorry, Ms. Aniston, but Brad and Angelina make a hot on-screen couple, and they gleefully throw themselves into this chaotic action flick in which the sharp dialogue too often gets drowned out by the incessant explosions and automatic weapon fire. The People Magazine perennials play John and Jane Smith, a suburban couple who have grown bored with each other over the six years theyve been married. But what they dont realize is that theyre both skilled assassins working for competing agencies; once this tidbit of information becomes known to both parties, each is suddenly forced to try to kill the other. The movies pacing is damaged by Doug Limans occasionally lackadaisical direction (a problem it shares with his The Bourne Identity), and once the emphasis shifts from the characters to the hardware they employ, it becomes just another noisy spectacle that cops out with a crowd-friendly ending.
THE LONGEST YARD PP
Imagine Adam Sandler in the Burt Reynolds role in Deliverance. Impossible, right? Yet it really isnt that much easier to accept Sandler in Reynolds old role of football-star-turned-convict Paul Wrecking Crewe in the remake of The Longest Yard. Sandler is squishy-soft in that unmistakable Hollywood manner -- he looks less like an a-hole athlete who could tough it out in a Texas prison than an eager-to-please Improv regular who somehow ended up in a Universal Studios tour backlot simulation of a Texas prison. Faithfulness to director Robert Aldrichs hard-hitting 1974 flick, in which Crewe leads a ragtag group of convicts in a football match against the sadistic guards, isnt the problem. But when this version does deviate from its source material, the results are disastrous.
CINDERELLA MAN PPP
Ron Howard can finally breathe easy.
No filmmaker in his right mind would want his boxing picture to be released a scant few months after Million Dollar Baby cleaned up at the Oscars and at the box office. But Cinderella Man is so structurally and tonally different from Clint Eastwoods masterwork that it might as well be about jai alai. This one never touches greatness like Clints Baby, but its a sturdy film on its own terms, relating the real-life story of pugilist James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe).
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS PPP
Sisterhood hurtles over most its shortcomings by adding a layer of toughness not usually found in films aimed at teens. As they prepare to go their separate ways for the summer, four high school friends stumble across a pair of jeans that miraculously fits all of them. They decide that the pants will be passed among them throughout the summer, as a way of staying in touch over long distances. Brainy Carmen (America Ferrera) will be spending the summer with her neglectful dad (Bradley Whitford); shy Lena (Alexis Bledel) will pass the time with distant relatives in Greece; sexy Bridget (Blake Lively) will hunt for boys while attending a soccer camp in Mexico; and antisocial Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) will remain in town completing her documentary.